In 2013, reclusive Dark Web pioneer Ross Ulbricht was arrested by the feds for creating what he called the Silk Road. While the name may sound innocent enough, it was actually an Amazon-like website where illegal drugs could be purchased and shipped right to your door. Jeff Bezos ain’t got nothin’ on that. There’s a potentially deep and multi-faceted aspect to Ulbricht’s rise to Internet prominence, and whether his free-market principles are as morally dubious as intense government regulation over the web, but Silk Road, the new film from director Tiller Russell isn’t really interested in that, trading any complexity for a basic, if still enjoyable, cat ‘n mouse thriller.
Like Ulbricht, Russell is a Texas boy and he perhaps finds some sympathy with the Internet and bitcoin trailblazer. Certainly, Russell seems to have an ear for Ulbricht’s philosophizing about libertarianism and sticking it to the government in any way he can. Ulbricht (played by Nick Robinson) spouts his beliefs to anybody who will listen, talking people’s ears off at parties like that guy who just saw Reservoir Dogs for the first time and can’t shut up about it. At the very least, Ulbricht has the balls to back up his words with deeds, and the brains to do pretty much anything he can put a mind to. He decides to set up an untraceable website, eventually called the Silk Road, as a one-stop-shop for illegal drugs.
Ulbricht’s ambition is mirrored in the dogged pursuit by federal narcotics agent Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke), who is busted down in disgrace to the Cybercrimes division where he’s outclassed by younger agents who do investigations from their laptops, while he barely knows how to operate a smartphone. Along with personal problems at home (Katie Aselton is his long-suffering wife), Bowden is totally out of his element but learns enough that he can put some of his old school boots-on-the-ground detective work to good use in tracking down Ulbricht.
Russell, who is having a killer 2021 already with the release of Netflix docuseries Night Stalker: The Hunt For a Serial Killer, clearly has a love for true crime but his instincts are off a little bit here. Both Ulbricht and Bowden are unlikable for various reasons, one is an obnoxious criminal the other can’t stop making making racist remarks to a source (Darrell Britt-Gibson) helping out on the case. But Russell seeks out ways to soften our perceptons of them rather than stick to the ugly truth, so we get dreadful sequences in which both men’s obsessions begin to cost them the women they love. It’s all very formulaic and far too reminiscent of your standard cop movie, when Silk Road has so much potential be more than that.
On the plus side, the clash of egos and battle of old school vs. new school is fairly compelling thanks to the lead performances. We’ve come to expect excellence from him by now, and Clarke delivers as the broken down, technologically illiterate Bowden, with some of the movie’s best bits his frustration at working for a bunch of kids who see him as a dinosaur. He makes the most of the role, revealing Bowden’s conviction to do what’s right underneath that rough exterior. Robinson lacks the kind of charisma someone like Ulbricht would need to command to pull something like the Silk Road off, but he’s good at depicting him as a neurotic criminal mastermind. Alexandra Shipp is also good as Ulbricht’s girlfriend, Julia, while Paul Walter Hauser kills it yet again in a comic performance as Ulbricht’s goofy sidekick and the first to crack under Bowden’s hilariously-applied pressure.
Silk Road lacks depth and a coherent message about what Ross Ulbricht was able to accomplish. It’s clear he sees himself as the hero of his own story, and there are plenty who would agree while others peg him as a villain who corrupted the Internet for his own means. There’s a better, more complete movie about the Silk Road to be made, but this story of an Internet kingpin’s rise and fall is still easy to get wrapped up in.
Silk Road is available in select theaters and VOD on February 19th.